Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Winning: Changing the Language of Breast Cancer

[By Phillis h. Rambsy]

In her recent blog post, Simone Savannah reminds us that instead of thinking of their bodies as “abnormal” women should “take charge of their health which also means embracing the differences in their bodies.”  Savannah points to the several poems that “give women the space to embrace their bodies.”  These poems allow women, particularly, Black women, to re-imagine the racist and sexist views of the Black female body.

Just as Savannah reminds us to be cognizant of the necessity of re-imagining the body, we should also be cognizant of re-imagining the language that is utilized to describe the lives of those who fight the opponent of breast cancer.  In revisiting a post from last year about Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, the vitality of Lorde in the face of breast cancer rival is striking.  Lorde’s language is one of a victor; one who is faced with a life-threatening disease but still chooses autonomy and victory rather than victimization and defeat.  Although, Lorde ultimately died as a result of breast cancer, she definitely was not defeated by the disease.  Lorde, through her narrative about her struggle with disease, proves that those diagnosed with breast cancer are not mere victims of the disease.  Above all, even in death, Lorde’s words remind us that those who have breast cancer, and even die from it, do not necessarily endure a losing battle.

A person who loses is a “loser.”  It is, therefore, baffling as well as inaccurate to detail the lives of those who have died from breast cancer in terms of their having “lost” their battles with the disease.  Describing individuals who die from breast cancer as having “lost” their battles employs a sports analogy by suggesting that those who have died from the disease are “losers.”  Indicating that, by dying, those with breast cancer have lost their battles also implies that they could have “won” if, like other losing athletes/teams, they had simply trained harder, been stronger, had better coaches, etc. 

The sobering reality of breast cancer is that it will, at times, cause death.  Yet describing breast cancer as the victor discounts the journeys of survival taken by those who live with breast cancer—even those who eventually die as a result of the disease.  Giving breast cancer the power of victory is also a disservice to the cheerleaders who stand on the sidelines and in the stands continuously offering encouragement during breast cancer journeys.  It also discounts the work, service and sacrifice of those other teammates who are also present on the field against this beastly foe.  

Those who live with and ultimately die from breast cancer are certainly not losers.  Instead, these individuals are mothers who decide that winning means witnessing their children graduate from high school; even while knowing that they may never see these children graduate from college, start a career, marry and/or have children.  Instead of being losers, these individuals are young sisters who refuse to let a diagnosis of breast cancer dictate the paths that the remainder of their lives will take; and they continue with education and career plans while battling breast cancer.  Far from being losers, these breast cancer warriors are individuals who transform chemotherapy sessions into impromptu reunions; and while, even in the face of death, produce some of the most delightful memories of their lives.   Even if death is the final destination on the breast cancer journey, those who battle the disease are certainly not losers.  Instead, they are MVPs, All-Stars, and Hall-of-Famers. 

Language is powerful; so too are labels.  To describe a person who has died from breast cancer as having “lost” the battle imparts a powerful message.  It suggests that the person with breast cancer somehow lacked a specified set of skills required to “win.”  Characterizing a person as having “lost” a battle with breast cancer also discounts the unique methods of survival employed by those who battle breast cancer.  Above all, to indicate that one who dies from breast cancer has “lost” eliminates the mental victories that are often won against breast cancer.  The mind is also powerful; and in the battles against breast cancer, the mind is one of the most useful strategies in the playbook.  The mind ensures that those living with breast cancer are continuously winning!

Phillis h. Rambsy is an attorney and educator. In addition to her work in the fields of law and education, Phillis also studies, writes, and speaks about theological issues as well as issues concerning health and wellness. Phillis is powerfully committed to encouraging individuals to attain lives that are spiritually, physically, and mentally healthy.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate this post. Language is very powerful. It is interesting to watch language evolve and how we use it in different instances. For example, the use of the word "victim" for people who have experienced some sort of trauma. The words we choose to talk about (someone else's) experience present show how in tune we are with (someone else's) experience or journey.

    I think the rhetoric surrounding breast cancer reflects how we view womanhood. For example, we view women who have to have mastectomies as losers. And they think of themselves that way because they no longer have that symbol of femininity/femaleness. I hope that makes sense.

    Anyway, I agree. I think it's important to examine language and its effect on the people who are being labeled.

    Great piece! Thank you for honoring our Champions!!